The most important Galápagos expositions were made between 1932-1935 by the Smithsonian Institution and Captain George “Allan” Hancock, oil scion and prominent Los Angeles philanthropist. Born in 1875 in San Francisco, Hancock grew up on Rancho La Brea; his father had purchased 4,500 acres of the Mexican land grant, located in present-day Los Angeles. Hancock’s father died in 1883, leaving his wife to raise two boys alone. Every morning, Hancock and his brother walked three miles to a one-room schoolhouse on a dirt road, which is now Wilshire Boulevard. When his brother died of typhoid fever in 1893, Hancock and his mother struggled to make ends meet by selling tar.
Their fortunes changed in 1900, when they granted a 20-year lease on 1,000 acres of La Brea to the Salt Lake Oil Company. Overnight millionaires, they built a mansion on what would become the corner of Wilshire and Vermont Avenue. In the coming years, Hancock founded the California Bank and the Automobile Club of Southern California and pursued his interest in music, eventually playing the cello in the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra. He was also a known eccentric who had an intense fear of being kidnapped, and purposely made his mansion look uninhabited: the grass remained wild and uncut; the blinds perpetually drawn; and, as an extra precaution, the mailbox bore his butler’s name. Hancock never even used the front entrance, always slipping in and out of the back.
Like Vincent Astor, Hancock had a lifelong interest in science and exploration, even donating the La Brea Tar Pits to Los Angeles with the stipulation that any uncovered fossils must be preserved. After passing an exam for a master mariner’s license, Hancock commissioned a naval architect to build him a series of “floating laboratories”: the Velero I, II, and III. He was especially proud of the Velero III, which operated as smoothly and efficiently as United States Coast Guard cutters. The interior was simple and streamlined, with one indulgence: a grand staircase, where his string orchestra could play in the evenings.
In December 1931, Hancock and a crew of nine scientists representing the Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco, the California Academy of Science, and the San Diego Zoological Society set sail for a four-months long voyage to various islands along the coast of South America, including the Galápagos. Hancock’s most important colleague was Waldo Schmitt, a biologist with the Smithsonian’s United States National Museum who specialized in fauna and decapod crustaceans (lobsters, crabs, shrimp). On one voyage to the Galápagos, Smith wondered if a stowaway found onboard was actually a reporter working undercover. He imagined the headlines: “Smithsonian cuties on voyage to nudist isle,” he wrote, referring to the scientists’ wives. He added his own thoughts about their attire. “Today all had shorts on… broad-brimmed beach or sailor hats… They wear sandals and paint their toenails a bright red. I told them I didn’t like it.”
Over the course of three expeditions to the Galápagos with Hancock’s crew, Schmitt collected and studied numerous rare specimens, among them pug-nosed seals, mollusks, and percnon gibbesi, a “remarkably flattened orange and brown surf crab.” But he found the exiles on Floreana to be the most exotic and fascinating of all and would become the most reliable chronicler of the strange happenings on the island.